Thursday, September 30, 2010

You Have to Suffer to be Beautiful

My mother's words. Sometimes said in annoyance through tight lips holding a bobby pin between her teeth, sometimes in jest. I'm also quite sure that she was repeating her own mother's words. Mostly she said them as she attached tight little circles of hair close to my scalp while I yelped from the scraping of my head if she grabbed a pin without the rubber tips. God that hurt.

The year is 1953 and I am  four years old. It's Saturday night and we are preparing for church tomorrow morning at Christ the King Catholic Church in Auburndale, Massachusetts. Early on Sunday morning my mother brushes out my sunbleached  blond hair into bouncy curls that surround my head. Standing over me, my mother pulls my starched and ironed pale yellow dress over my head and  my petticoats.

The petticoats make a swishing noise when I purposefully wiggle my hips. I slip on my black patent leather Mary Janes over white socks. My shoes make a delicious sound when I skip around  in circles on the hard wood floors. I had shined them the day before by wiping Vaseline over them with a soft white cloth.

My stomach is empty and growling, but we aren't allowed to eat breakfast before church. My mother and older sisters have to fast before Holy Communion and even though I am too young to go up, I still wasn't offered food and I wouldn't have asked.

My sisters, also curled and ironed and swishing, follow my mother into a pew then kneel down to say our prayers before Mass begins. The priest enters, swinging a censure, with Frankincense and Myrrh on fire, smoke swirling up to the ceiling, sending our prayers directly up  to heaven. Tinkling bells ring and my stomach continues to growl. We stand up, kneel down. I copy the big people, taking my right fist beating my heart three times. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Suffering is good. It makes us beautiful.

Last night I was brushing Rebecca's hair after I washed and put creme rinse it. She is my oldest granddaughter and at 5 1/2, has blond hair that is very thick and luxurious, but really a pain to comb out. I try to be gentle and still I end up hurting her trying to get the tangles out. It's become a battle between us. Turning to my daughter, I said, half jokingly say, "Shall I tell her Grandma's saying?"   She shook her head. I don't want to put those words in Rebecca's consciousness either. I did tell my daughter the saying, but I really hope she knows I was kidding, but still language matters.

The truth is my sisters and I would have been beautiful without all that suffering. Pictures of us as kids bear it out. We were strong, blond, cute, tanned girls with bright blue eyes, big white straight teeth. We were all beautiful already. My oldest sister, Sandy caught polio when she was 12. Every family picture of her after that, right before it was taken, my mother would quietly slip in taking Sandy's crutches away. There aren't any photos of her with crutches as a girl or young adult. 

In our family, the woman have spent a lot of time, money, dieting, shaving, plucking, and surgery trying to be beautiful. It's funny how words stick, sayings permeate thought, and how language really does have the power to move us in ways we don't always examine. Even now after most of my estrogen is gone, sometimes I look in the rear view mirror at a stop light, feeling good about myself, then I see it. In the bright sunlight, a couple of long gray hairs on my chin. Geesh.

I once heard someone say that he hoped God was a  big smiling Italian grandmother, tomato sauce splashed on her flowered apron, arms outstretched, saying, "Mangia! Mangia!"  I'm hoping for a God who looks at all of us like I look at my granddaughter. Realistic, but also with total love and acceptance, seeing our inner and outer beauty and goodness, and rooting for us to see it, too.

Friday, September 24, 2010


We have our routine. When my grandchildren, Rebecca 5,  and Aiden 4, come to visit me in my little cottage, after they settle down to relax, they both will begin to inspect my living space. What are they looking for?  They are making sure I am  keeping some key items in my home in the same condition and space as their last visit.

If I had one of their colorful paintings on my refrigerator held up by magnets, then they want to make sure it's still there.  Of utmost importance to both Aiden and Rebecca, are what I keep on my window sills, the significant religious and pagan items I love. Sea shells and stars I've collected, beach rocks, hawk feathers, a silver Cobra with ruby eyes, pieces of drift wood, statues of Mary and Guadalupe, turquoise candles, and pink quartz and tiny amethyst crystals surround my window sills.
The latest development in the last year has been that  both Rebecca and Aiden always want to take home a small memento of me and my home, back to their own houses. It reassures them in a way I can't quite explain.

For Aiden, he always wants to take home MAG-A-NETS that I made several years ago. I created small paintings of fruit, color copied them, pasted them on periwinkle blue card stock, then laminated them. I glued the strongest  magnets I could find to the back. On the way out the door, he asks me, "Grandma, can I take some mag-a-nets? I really need some. We don't have enough. " I always say yes. He's taken maybe a dozen home, and I've yet to see them on his own fridge. Perhaps, like a little squirrel, he's saving them in a tucked away space somewhere in his room. Who knows?  The times we make cookies together, it seems to satisfy his need by taking home some. This week it was lemon frosted cookies in a paper bag.

Last week Rebecca spent the night. Right off she made sure that the little pink, bejeweled notebook she gave me last Christmas was sitting on my computer desk. She picked it up, flipped through the pages, then set it back in the same spot. Touched my little silver bell music box, turned it upside down, twisted the winder, listened to "Silver Bells" for a minute and then put it back. Rebecca gets on her knees on my bed, then methodically  touches my Abalone shells, my gold framed picture of myself and my sisters, tiny rosaries, every little thing.

This time Rebecca focused on a 5 inch high  statue of Mary in her red dress, blue robes, standing on top of the world, bare left foot crushing a snake. "Can I take it home, Grandma?" I thought about it and decided, yes, she could. I asked if she would take good care of it. Rebecca nodded. "Okay then. You should put something around her so she won't break on the way to your house, " I told her.

She got out my scotch tape and reached up on the kitchen counter for paper towels. Rebecca, in deep concentration, reverently rolled the paper towels over and over Mary's small frame. She spent several more minutes and the rest of the roll,  taping it all in place. Finally, she nestled Mary into her tiger skin purse for the ride home.

Children love repetition, and a ritual is repetition over and over again.  Ritual gives all of us a sense of security, comfort, and familiarity so very important for our well-being. It is especially potent when ritual is personal so that it speaks to us when we don't have the language to explain. I'm not positive what it all means, just that we do the same dance each time, and it all has an edge of mystery to it. All I know is they want part of me to keep and it makes me really happy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Aidan Learned in Kindergarten

If you've read my previous blog about my two grandchildren starting kindergarten a couple of weeks ago, you'll know that it was heart wrenching for me to see them flung into the big world. They seemed so small, so vulnerable.  Well, I'm here to report that they are doing well and negotiating their new environments with all the sharply honed skills of  CIA operatives in training. Especially Aiden for whom I was most concerned. He has been observing his peers, learning the subculture of school, and figuring out how to crack the system all in his first week.

Aiden has an October birthday so he is still 4 years old. He's a little smaller than the other kids, but has charm and intelligence, a winning smile with a gorgeous dimple, and beautiful, light blue eyes. I know he can get anything he wants out of me. The first day of school all went well. Aiden went to the after-school program for a few hours, found the bathroom, ate his lunch, made friends with a beauty named Ella.

The second day, however, his lunch disappeared. He had enough guts to tell the teacher, he didn't suffer in silence, which is good. He spoke up for himself. The adults went into protective mode. He was personally walked down to the cafeteria, an account was set up, and not only that. The cafeteria lady said with a smile, "Honey, would you like regular or chocolate milk?" 

Aiden was in heaven. Why only his Grandma had given him chocolate milk! Mac and cheese, pizza, corn dogs, CHOCOLATE milk, for crying out loud. A whole new world opened up for him. He went home and told his parents, "Do you know they have a restaurant for kids at the school?"

Day three. Aiden has his lunch with him, but he's thinking to himself, "How do I get back to that wonderful place?"  So what he did was: he ate his lunch and  his snack at the morning snack time. Again he was walked down to the cafeteria, ordered lunch AND chocolate milk and put it on his parents tab.

His explanation was that he had to do it. His lunch was gone already. The good news is this:  he is still innocent enough to confess, but  it won't work a second time. I think he's going to be just fine.

Monday, September 6, 2010

One Minute Unexpected Beauty...

Labor Day. It's a beautiful morning, slightly warm with a little breeze. I'm itching to write since it's been a week or so. I was sitting outside drinking my coffee thinking about what I wanted to write about, when out of nowhere, plop! I was hit by a flurry of bird poop on my shorts, shirt, and hands. Not just any poop, but deep purple wet stuff like someone had squished a bunch of blueberries and thrown them overhanded at me. Fresh out the shower, I haven't looked at my clean hair yet. How unfair is that? I was minding my own business thinking happy thoughts.

Two days before, on Saturday, same lovely weather, again thinking happy thoughts with a cup of coffee in my hand, when a big spotted Cooper's hawk landed on the post on my small deck not 3 feet away from me. I was so startled and excited that I called to my granddaughter, Rebecca,  "Come look. A hawk!  My yelling upset the big bird, who took off  in flight before Rebecca could see it. Still, how fun is that?

You can see where I'm going with this. Both great metaphors for how life can treat you: one minute unexpected beauty, the next, bird poop all over you.

After the hawk left, Rebecca and I packed up to go swimming at our local high school. We left the house with matching Trader Joe's bags for bathing suits, goggles, and towels.  I try to swim everyday and on Saturdays, Rebecca is my swimming buddy.  A little reluctant to take her into the deep pool they've moved the lap swimmers into, I just decided to take her, but I'd stay right next to her to grab her if need be. We paddled around for 30 minutes, lost 2 kick boards over the edge of the pool, had races, laughed and enjoyed ourselves.

While in the pool, I took a close look at Rebecca. At 5 1/2, she has lost her front two top and bottom baby teeth. On the top, one top big tooth is almost all the way down and straight, big and white. Her looks have changed from baby to toddler to little girl. Her hair, cut to her shoulders for kindergarten, is very blond in front from the sun and swimming, her eyelashes are long and have darkened along with her eyebrows. For a flash of a second, I could see what the grown up girl will look like. With the sun on her face, she looked so happy, so radiant.

Even though life can throw anything at you, including a shower of purple bird poop,  it's those moments of time slowing down, noticing unexpected beauty, that I notice more and more with my grandchildren.